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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 20:13–22.


Transition to Sustainability


Sustainability requires the shaping of a new relationship between humanity and nature. Sustainability can be achieved if human needs can be ensured in the present, at the same time the environment and natural resources can be preserved for future generations.


The concept of sustainability

Some decades ago everybody, the media, politicians, decision-makers, but even representatives of the scientific community, spoke about sustainable development. The expression is still used by many, though at present the world does not function that way, in a sustainable manner. To put it differently: the way we live, produce and consume, cannot be continued in the long run. Population growth cannot be sustained, neither the rate of using up resources, nor the growth of economic inequalities and the degradation of the environment.

One of the most important elements of sustainability is the protection of the environment in a broader sense: the protection of the systems and resources of nature.

New scientific knowledge and technologies based on knowledge are necessary and significant elements of the achievement of sustainability. Scientific and technical progress promises new resources of energy, a more efficient industry and agriculture, better quality products, the improvement of our health and environment-friendly technologies. Progress in science, technology and health care, provided it is supported by political will and international cooperation of the countries of the world and corroborated by their social and economic policies, may be a significant step towards a sustainable world in the next century.

At the same time science also offers tools for measuring how far we have approached sustainability. Instead of the currently used measures, such as GDP, GNP and others, or in addition to them indices characteristic of approximating sustainability should be applied.


Challenges of population explosion

In the next century food, housing, education, teaching and employment (work) should be guaranteed for many more people. In 2000 the population of the Earth reached 6 thousand million. By 2050 a population of almost 9 thousand million is expected, which seems to stabilise around 9 to 10 thousand million by the end of the century. In 2050 80% of the population will live in developing countries. The rate of growth depends on the size of families, on family planning, and on the ability of later generations to actually implement the desirable changes that are decided upon. Policies slowing down population growth and programmes supporting it are of primary importance.

For the first time in history more than half of the population of the world live and work in cities. In the next one hundred years urban population may exceed 4 thousand million. It is equivalent to the need for building 400 cities of the size of Shanghai or Jakarta in the next century. It will be an enormous task to provide housing, jobs, water, food, transport, health care and other services for the new urban population.

At present the number of people suffering from famine is estimated at 800 million. Presumably this figure will also increase with population growth. Income differences keep on increasing all over the world and if there are to be no rigorous measures taken for its correction, the trend may persist. The global growth of the production of food and other goods may mitigate famine and poverty, but by itself it does not offer a solution. A new, comprehensive policy and programmes are needed.


Preservation of the environment and natural resources

Our planet is kept alive by the physical and biological systems of the Earth such as the atmosphere, soil, the oceans and the biosphere. By now humanity has become capable of changing the environment to such an extent that may even overcome the rate of natural changes. Therefore extreme precaution is necessary.

One of the changes of the composition of the atmosphere, the growth of the quantity of carbon dioxide results in global climatic change with consequences impossible to foresee. The increase of temperature is a fact proven not only by meteorological measurements, but also by the melting of the ice caps on the North and South poles and the withdrawal or total disappearance of glaciers. The ice cap on the North pole is about 40% thinner than it used to be 30 years ago, huge, several thousand square kilometres of icebergs break off from the Antarctic, and almost 2000 glaciers have completely disappeared (melted away) in the Himalayan region during the twentieth century. As the large quantities of fresh water flowing into the Atlantic may rearrange its streams, including the Gulf Stream warming the northwestern part of Europe, certain areas (Europe too!) may significantly cool down. But the conditions of precipitation also change. Precipitation will be much more in some places, and less elsewhere, causing floods and aridity, draught respectively. Both changes may significantly disturb the normal functioning of agriculture. Finally, during the course of climatic change the number and intensity of extraordinary meteorological events may significantly grow: hurricanes, tornadoes, lasting rains can be expected.



Resource, material

Currently per capita annual use

Optimum of per capita annual environmental resource

Necessary change %

Aims for 2010, change in %


536 kilo

80 kilo



Crude iron

273 kilo

36 kilo




12 kilo

1.2 kilo




0.66 m3

0.56 m3



Carbon-dioxide emission

7.3 tons

1.7 tons




23 kilo

0 kilo



Source: Spangenberg J. (ed.): The Study “Towards sustainable Europe”. Wappertal Institute, 1995.


Ozone is also a vital component of the atmosphere though it occurs in small quantity. Currently the quantity of ozone in the stratosphere is falling under the influence of halogenated hydrocarbons that catalyse the disintegration of the three-atom ozone. It can also entail consequences that are difficult to foresee on the human health and of the biosphere in a broader sense.

Several vital materials originate from the ecological systems of the Earth, such as: food, building materials, fuel, drugs, and raw materials for industries. Several of their functions are equally important: such as the circulation of water and of other chemical compounds, water purification, flood control, pollination of plants, purification of the atmosphere and others. The diversity of genes, species, and ecosystems itself is valuable. A transition to sustainability can only be envisaged if the condition of ecosystems and species is preserved under the rapidly changing circumstances.

Of the further consequences of human activities here mention should be made only of the extremely rapid growth of wastes, and hazardous chemical and radioactive ones among them. If the 6 thousand million people ‘produced’ such a quantity of waste as it is done by an average American, the entire biosphere would be transformed into garbage within a couple of decades. Other, clean technologies and recycling are needed, wastes should be treated and carefully deposited. We have to shift gradually from surveying damages to prevention.

Innumerable other sources of danger may adversely influence the condition of the environment. Among them there are the natural disasters (beyond the long-term change of climate and the decrease of ozone the consequences of which are difficult to foresee), floods and internal waters, drought, earthquakes, landslides, storms (tornadoes), forest fires. And catastrophes caused by man, such as industrial and agricultural pollution, industrial accidents, accidents occurring during the transportation of hazardous materials and those resulting from improper storage of wastes. Further troubles that are real ones but difficult to classify are the growing health problems (viruses, new strains of bacteria, or due to our way of life) and conflicts (terrorism, organised crime, civil war, war).

We are not adequately prepared for them. We have not reached a stage that would be desirable and where we should be either in scientific foundations, or in surveying and in averting damages (wherever adequate methods are available), and not in regular monitoring.


Limitations of food production

In the next 50 years the demand for food is expected to treble. Its reasons are: population growth, the increase of per capita income and hopefully successful efforts to reduce the malnutrition of the very poor. That significant demand can only be satisfied if there are to be dramatic changes in the production, distribution, accessibility and safety of food.



Name of holder

The Earth

Europe, 1000 km2

Hungary, km2


1000 km2




Oceans, seas




Salt water lakes





Total of salt water





Polar ice caps and glaciers









Fresh water lakes





Ground water





Sub-surface layer and deep waters





Water vapour in the atmosphere





Total of fresh water





Total of water resources





Source: Kerekes, Sándor: A környezetgazdálkodás alapjai (Foundations of environmental economy). Budapest, 1998.


During the past half century the growth of plant production derived from four interrelated sources such as the growth of cultivated areas, an increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides, an expansion of irrigation and the improvement of high-yielding species. All the four possibilities have their natural limitations, therefore the desirable growth of agricultural production will be far more difficult to assure in the 21st century than it was until recently.

Scientific and technological breakthroughs may, in the long run increase the efficiency of food production, particularly in the area of biotechnology. In addition to the increasing quantity of production the reduction of chemical protection against plant diseases and pests and ecology-based protection may also be expected of biotechnology. As new technologies, such as genetically modified (GM) plants gain ground, there is to be a growing need for a scientifically based study of the possible adverse effects, together with the elaboration of strategies eliminating dangers.

More efficient irrigation systems preserve and maintain the stock of water and help the satisfaction of other, non-agricultural demands. New agricultural techniques requiring less ploughing reduce soil erosion and the loss of water.

A scientifically based classification of cultivated areas into zones, that is precision agriculture may help avoid that natural habitats are turned into destroyed waste lands due to harmful agricultural activities. Processes of improvement that also preserve the diversity of plants and animals enhance the capacity of agriculture to fend off the effects of climatic change or those of other environmental surprises.


Use of water

Fresh water is a renewable source. Drainage after rains, a replenishment of soil water and the streams of near (the surface) waters supplement for the quantities used. Globally the stock of water is big. At the same time water is very unevenly distributed among countries, local springs are either scanty or polluted in several countries.

About one-third of the global population lives in countries where water is not always available. In the developing countries more than one thousand million people have no access to drinking water of reliable quality, and another three thousand million have no water supply of a quality acceptable from the point of public health! Water-related illnesses cause the death of 5 to 10 million people annually, mostly of children and the elderly. In the developing countries the quality of water is deteriorating, particularly in cities due to rapid industrialisation and growing pollution.

Drawing of water from the surface water systems, irrespective of whether it is for agricultural, urban, or industrial purposes, may harm aquatic communities and marine systems. Further on, their quality is degraded by urban sewage water, pollution by industry and agricultural activities as well as by the burning of fossil fuels. Subsequently the degradation of aquatic systems reduces the quantity and quality of water available for human use.

Numerous current technologies may increase a more efficient use of water but before they are applied, or prior to the introduction of new technologies, the elaboration of new strategies of water management is also needed. These strategies have to consider the processes and protection of communities besides the utilisation of arable land and the quality of water. The price of water used for various purposes should be set so that it may promote economizing, reuse and recycling.


Ensuring energy

In the 21st century energy should be ensured at least for 8 thousand million people and meanwhile the health of man as well as the biosphere should be preserved. Currently the majority of energy is supplied by oil, coal, natural gas and wood. Many of the environmental hazards, such as acid rains (affecting agriculture and the economy), air pollution (with serious damages caused to health), and climatic changes are the consequences of the use of coal-based fuels. If the damage caused by the burning of fuel is not built into its price, then presumably fossil fuels will be available at a relatively low price in the coming 50 years.

Several industrial nations have accomplished significant progress in the reduction of local and regional pollution by controlling emission. At the same time local as well as regional pollution is a serious and growing problem in the developing world. As far as global atmospheric changes are concerned there is broad agreement on the need for limiting carbon dioxide emission, as it is also indicated by agreements on the emission of glasshouse gases, but with a few exceptions serious restrictions have not yet been introduced.

Though the methods of energy production not based on fossil fuels do serve the local, regional, or global problems of air pollution, but each of them have different limitations and specific dangers. The available waterpower is already utilised in the industrial countries. Several developing countries plan or build huge dams but the enormous cost, accompanied by adverse environmental effects that are already experienced and the problems of the necessary resettlement of the aboriginal population slow down expansion.

In the industrial countries the building of nuclear power stations has practically stopped. Its reasons are that the investment is very costly, that there are problems of depositing radioactive wastes; that materials suited also for the manufacture of nuclear weapons may reach illicit hands, and there is the issue of nuclear safety.

The renewable resources of energy, such as wind, sun, biomass, are promising ones, but the development of their use, particularly in the light of abundant and cheap fossil fuels, is insufficiently rapid.

In the next century the demand of the growing population of the Earth can only be satisfied if new and more efficient technologies for the production of energy are developed. Further progress is desirable in the effectiveness of the use of water. The introduction of decentralised systems of alternative energy production, namely systems using biomass, solar and wind energy should be promoted everywhere wherever their use is justified. Environmental regulation the introduction of fees and penalties charged for harmful emission is needed by the introduction of cleaner technologies should be helped by demonstrations, by the reduction of their costs and by subsidies.


Problems of health care

The recent decades have brought unprecedented development in the changes of the conditions of health care in the world. In most countries life expectancy has grown by more than 25 years. Yet the poorest peoples of the world still have to shoulder the burden of several, mostly avoidable illnesses and death. They happen to be the consequences of the lack of health-care provision, of poverty and malnutrition. Poverty forces millions of the urban and rural population to live under conditions without the minimum of hygiene, and the lack of clean water and sewage systems is the hotbed of infectious diseases.

In the coming 25 years the health care problems of the entire population of the Earth will approximate those that currently have to be faced by the population of the industrialised countries. Actually decreasing fertility and the growth of the average age of the population make the curing of illnesses of the adult population important, while the proportion of children’s diseases is becoming smaller. Depression, cardiovascular diseases and cancer should be particularly mentioned of illnesses hitting adults. The consumption of drugs and smoking are growing problems too.

In the developing countries it is an urgent task to create a sustainable scientific and medical infrastructure, the employment of researchers and specialist medical doctors.


The role of research and education

In a sustainable world it is decision-making based on the knowledge of facts that is needed. Therefore the global and vigorous development of scientific, engineering and health care capacities is a central element in the strategy on sustainability. Civil organisations, private enterprises, regional and national governments have to work jointly and in cooperatively on the elaboration of tasks and their local-level implementation.

It is desirable that the institutions of research should gain strength all over the world. Radically new solutions, energy-saving clean technologies can be expected only from new ways of thinking, and long-term basic researches. They have to be strengthened and directed to the solution of social problems. Local, national and global institutions should be linked in the interest of efficiency. The strengthening of research relations between academic, governmental and private institutions, and of different scientific disciplines would also enhance efficiency.

In the coming decades the scientific community of the world has to evolve reliable indices that measure how far we have approximated sustainability. Society has to be regularly informed about the results and changes. The major indices will have to characterise the following factors:

1. human needs, the condition of the environmental systems,

2. regional dimensions of environmental vulnerability,

3. locally assessing the types of areas and ecosystems,

4. the extent of progress in such intermediate areas like health, the quality of water and air, and energy efficiency (energy saving).


Development of a global information network

A large amount of knowledge, know-how, skills and experience, allowing for better decision-making, has been accumulating in the world. There is great need however for mechanisms that make the knowledge of an individual, group, company, or nation utilisable by other persons, groups, companies, or nations as well. These mechanisms should increasingly change into cooperation and partnership instead of competition and the older unilateral and one-way assistance.

The scientific community has obtained a unique, hitherto unprecedented chance to reduce the ‘information-gap’ among people by the new information technologies and the appearance of the world wide web. In other countries electronic contacts could or should be created with international assistance. The already existing network makes it possible in theory for anyone to have access to researchers, engineers and medical doctors in some countries. With a further extension of the world wide web a condition should be reached under which people may have access to scientific and technical knowledge or to experts whom they can consult for they the solution of their problems and to the improvement of their quality of life anywhere. At the same time they should have the possibility of communicating their own knowledge, views and needs with others.

During the past years an understanding was reached on interrelated important aims on which an operation that preserves nature could be based. Our consumption and production habits should be altered in order to preserve the health of the environment and the resources. In theory science and technology can ensure the means necessary to the realisation of sustainability for the present and future generations. Existing knowledge should be made available more broadly and more effectively, new knowledge should be obtained by scientific research, and new, clean technologies should be elaborated on the basis of that knowledge. Transition requires an economic and social policy differing from the present one, and for that reason the scientific academies have to cooperate more closely with governments, international organisations and the private sphere in the interest of sustainability. Its realisation can be our hope. This is why we ask of decision- makers and of society to for their support of future research.


Changes of consumer habits

Consumption goes hand in hand with the transformation of matter and energy. In every case when matter or energy is transformed and becomes less usable, or adversely influences the biological and physical systems, sustainability is endangered.

In the second part of the twentieth century the production, making and utilisation of energy and goods grew at a much faster rate than population did. In the developed countries the specific use of matter and energy was reduced, it means that efficiency grew. Full consumption however grew all over the world, in the developed as well as in the developing countries.

Ensuring the need for energy and matter is the greatest difficulty of sustainability. As the demand for matter grows in the developing countries and increasing wealth creates new requirements, it makes new consumer habits possible or at least desirable, those difficulties would be enhanced.

All these support the claim that the efficiency of the utilisation of energy and matter is of extreme importance. In addition to scientists and engineers the joint effort of economic experts and social scientists is needed to alter consumer habits. Science and technology by itself is unable to ensure sustainability, if our consumer habits do not change.


Ability for conflict management

In the twenty-first century the extent of the approximation to stability and security would also influence sustainability. Conflicts may ensue from competition for the acquisition of nourishments, water, information, etc. Access to the necessary resources may be limited, or even made impossible by organised crime, drug trafficking, civil wars, or terrorism. In an extreme case even wars may break out between states. As the use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons cannot be excluded, devastation bigger than ever before may also be a result.

Therefore it is necessary to understand how these events, endangering sustainability, can be avoided, or managed, how the stability and normal functioning of institutions can be ensured. Science may significantly promote understanding and cooperation, it may stress the enormity of the cost of conflicts; it may explore and eliminate the sources of conflicts.